Going back to basics: Six takeaways from the 2017 Media Learning Seminar

Communities / Article

In an era of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and ever-evolving media platforms, the biggest lesson for the future of journalism is that it’s time to get back to basics.

Dial up Journalism 101. Ask better questions. Listen—are  you ready for this—70 percent of the time.

These aren’t the musings of Luddites but strategies for news organizations to regain the public’s trust, now at an all-time low.

In fact, if journalism were the airline industry, it would be flying empty planes and headed for bankruptcy, George Washington University Professor Frank Sesno told those gathered for Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar earlier this week.

Everyone in the room – the seminar is a gathering of community and place-based foundation leaders, journalists and technology experts – are all in their own way dedicated to building more informed and engaged communities. Yet time and again, the wide-ranging discussions often came back to how community organizations and the media can better engage and reflect the people they serve.

Here are some key takeaways from the two-day event, which took place Feb. 13-14 in Miami:

Ask better questions 

Whether you’re a community leader or a broadcaster, your questions shouldn’t be random acts of curiosity. Good questions should have a process, purpose and an outcome, said Sesno, who wrote a book on the issue. Whether they are diagnostic questions (What’s going on here?), creative (What does success look like?) or strategic (Have the costs and risks been analyzed?), our increasingly complex world demands that we go a step further in our thinking, asking and even listening.

In his talk, Sesno gave a primer on how to get better, but you can start by asking his favorite question of your local mayor, nonprofit or your favorite news outlet: How do you know what you know?

Assess your blind spots

Journalists at the seminar agreed that trust is suffering because newsrooms don’t reflect the experiences and perspectives of all Americans. But which voices are they missing? Those of white conservatives, anyone who lives between the coasts, African-Americans, Hispanics, or a combination of any, all or others?

The white conservatives who decided the presidential election feel they are constantly under assault, argued Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist on a contentious panel led by CNN Host Brian Stelter.

“It would be nice for the media to have a little more understanding of how nonstop this assault has been going on for decades,” Hemingway said.

Several others argued the cause is that newsrooms have ignored minorities, an age-old problem, said New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. Newsrooms need to – finally, after decades of talking about the problem – make bigger strides in reflecting the people they serve.

“I think if your newsrooms do not reflect the country, which is 40 percent non-white, that is a problem in building trust. Period,” Hannah-Jones said.

Cultural institutions can help probe local issues at a deeper, more emotional level

The week after civil unrest erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina, last fall, after a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American man, while searching for another in his neighborhood, the Levine Museum for the New South brought the community together for a conversation. It was a packed house.  “We said, that can’t be it. That can’t be the end to our conversation,” said museum President Kathryn Hill.

Instead, the museum decided to fast-track a photo exhibit planned for 2018, and combine it with voices of local police, protesters, faith leaders and others to create K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peace. The exhibit, which opens this week, tells the stories of fatal confrontations involving police in Charlotte and elsewhere around the country. In many ways, it was co-created with the community.

Museums can tell stories with full emotional impact, Hill said. “That’s what I think the arts can bring to the conversation.”

Remember your principles

When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, he brought resources to fundamentally change the news organization’s strategy, Executive Editor Marty Baron said. And reporters in the newsroom continually shift the way they report and produce stories as new technology platforms develop. On Monday, in fact, the Post launched a partnership with Snapchat, Baron said.

But the principles of good journalism remain the same, and all Post journalists have to keep an eye on the three pillars when reporting: evidence, and a source’s expertise and experience.

Thomas Jefferson is a beacon in today’s changing media landscape, he said, quoting the former president: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Partnerships can bridge divides

When it comes to systemic issues affecting cities, two community foundations have reached out to new partners to make big strides in addressing them, and to build deeper ties with the community.

In Los Angeles, for example, the California Community Foundation has brought together competing Spanish-language stations for a public awareness campaign to encourage citizenship.

Part of that campaign included creating a rapid-response issues team, so that when news breaks on immigration issues both the media partners, the foundation and community organizations get on the phone, talk about what each side is hearing and look for ways to better inform the community.

“If you’re an undocumented immigrant, you want information. But the biggest thing you want is an ally… an organization that can guide you and give you a sense of protection,” explained Efrain Escobedo, the foundation’s vice president for civic engagement and policy. He describes building trust this way: “I need to know you to trust you…I have to work with you to know you.”

In Chicago, the Community Trust is working with the police department to restore trust in law enforcement, in part by expanding its community engagement initiative On the Table to regular community gatherings they call Peace Circles.

“Because of social isolation in gated communities, we simply don’t know each other. When we don’t know each other, we don’t care about each other. We don’t act,” said the Trust’s President and CEO Terry Mazany.

Don’t ignore the tech – help shape it.

Futurist Amy Webb was reading a story on the proliferation of fake news on nytimes.com when a piece of related content popped up: Alec Baldwin, dead at 58. Anyone watching “Saturday Night Live” these days knows Baldwin is very much alive, and can spot the meta irony of a piece of fake news being embedded in an editorial on the end of reliable facts. But the truth is algorithms these days are deciding what news is placed where online. The result is a proliferation of fake news and public misinformation. Because of the lack of human involvement, no one is accountable, Webb said.

Communities can’t just sit back and let this happen though, Webb argued. They must get involved in the ethics of technology and to help shape it, much like a recent Knight Foundation investment in a fund to help shape the ethics of artificial intelligence to benefit society.

“We are at the beginning of what’s next. You cannot wait,” said Webb, who offered a host of resources for anyone wanting to get involved.

Marika Lynch is a communications consultant for Knight Foundation.